Did you ever hear the Steve Goodman song, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”? (A more popular version was recorded by David Allan Coe.) It’s subtitle is “The Perfect Country and Western Song” because it was a joking attempt by Goodman and his co-writer John Prine to squeeze every stereotypical feature of country-western music into just one song. In one of the final verses Goodman, responding to Coe’s complaints about what has been left out, empties the bucket in a ridiculous fashion just to cram in drinking, and trucks, and dead dogs, etc. It’s a great and hilarious song.
The Barbarous Coast made me think of the song because, though it not meant humorously, you could see it as a similar attempt to force every archetype of the hardboiled detective novel into just one story. There’s a tough, no-nonsense ex-cop P.I. who has a propensity for sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, a beautiful blonde in some trouble of her own devising, a crooked prizefighter on the way down, rich men without scruples, and long-buried family secrets that people are willing to kill to keep quiet.
Lew Archer is hired by two men nearly simultaneously, both of whom want him to find a missing former high dive champion who hasn’t been heard from. She’s still dealing with the murder of her best friend a year ago, and may be hiding some knowledge of the perpetrator. Her husband wants her to come back to Toronto with him, while her employer’s desires are murkier.
Much like the novels of Raymond Chandler, MacDonald’s plotting can be confusing. As the dead bodies and the revelations pile one on top of the other, the reader can start to feel as groggy as the P.I. after one of those all-too-frequent blows to the head. Still, MacDonald is a master of the psychological underpinnings of crime, and the solution to this string of murders is clearly presented and suitably surprising.